We are driving out on a very very long seawall that separates the community of Xuan Thu from the East (South China) Sea. We’re at the mouth of the Red River which drains parts of Laos, China, and much of northern Vietnam, flowing southeast through Hanoi (which is 4+ hours away by car).
On the seaward side are shacks placed 25-plus feet above the water’s surface on stilts. On the landward side, now separated from the sea by this wall we’re driving on, are miles of salt pans (see Jean’s post about Farming #1) and shrimp and prawn pools. The shellfish “pools” are dredged rectangular depressions (40′ X 40′), lined with plastic, filled with sea water. This is where a significant portion of our shellfish in America are raised. Both the salt pans and the prawn/shrimp beds are formed where thousands of acres of native mangrove swamps once flourished.
Out to sea the shacks are at first scattered, appearing fragile, as if a good stiff wind would topple them. Indeed a few look like they are drunken sailors heading for the bar-room floor. We are not quite prepared for what we’re to see the next day.
We get picked up from our home-stay, taken to another location for a quick simple breakfast, and then we’re loaded into our van along with our host and a very large cooler for lunch.
We drive out on a different portion of the seawall and pick up an older man who is our birding guide. We drive until we come to a gate which is not supposed to be locked….but there it is and there we are. So we clamber out. Jean an I are happy for a chance to walk, but our host and the van driver now have to carry the quite heavy cooler between them. We arrive at an odd cluster of boats and realize we’re to get on the smallish one for our tour of the UNESCO protected wetland and wildlife park. We don brand new life jackets (brought for our benefit we conclude). I cause a great deal of laughter for the fishermen gathered about as many hands are necessary, it seems, to help me “broaden” the straps on my vest so that my distinctly non-Asian sized body/ bodice will fit in the life jacket!
Our tour boat is an open-decked fishing boat, with a single stroke engine, probably from the ’50’s. It has to be started with a hand-crank. Our seats-of-honor are on the gaping planks immediately above the engine. Four INCHES above the single stroke engine. If the frayed belt flying around that flywheel gives-way, our rear-ends are the first thing it will encounter before the blue sky!
We motor out a channel to the sea’s edge, the morning both foggy and the “fresh air” filled with, well, smog. And what we see, as far as we can see, are shacks on stilts above the water. Like so many osprey’s aeries, perched in the air above the calm surface of the sea. These are clam shacks.
We motor through them for an hour, weaving our way toward the refuge to watch birds. We see very few birds really, even inside the refuge. Partially because we are a few weeks early for the thousands that will show up here to over-winter from mainland China and Russia. And partially because there is so very little habitat left for the resident birds.
But we do have one great sighting. We work our way up a long channel and come to a dock. Beyond, up the completely overgrown concrete pathway, are several multi-story buildings, and incongruously, a lookout tower. A quite tall lookout tower. We walk past the structures (the VN flag is flying but not a person is in sight), bushwhack through the brush (no evidence of a trail or path) and come to the bottom of the tower. This is a tower with stained concrete (pink!) stairs and a formerly chromed metal handrail up all three stories. It is massively built and completely out of context. Our host can only tell us that this is a government outpost out here to control the border. Now remember we’re miles from solid land, a good half-mile from the open shallow water of the sea, and surrounded by mangrove swamp. We realize we are maybe the first tourists to be here, or certainly in the top 10. And we have no understanding (still) of what these buildings were made for or why they are here. But from up on top of the tower we get a “birds-eye” view of a black-shouldered kite (that’s a bird; most similar to an osprey). And a stunning view of what the coast of Vietnam may have looked like in the not so distant past.
We head back and discover that lunch will be served up in one of the clam shacks. In fact the only one of the shacks to stay standing after a massive typhoon some years ago. Most of the rest were wiped out and rebuilt.
We come alongside the bamboo ladder, everyone scrambles up (the cooler of lunch is muscled up first); and I know several of them hold their breath wondering if I can make it up there. Except for some of the bamboo rungs slipping just enough to get My attention (but no one else’s), no good stories come from my ascent.
From our aerial viewpoint we can see that each shack stands sentinel over a “plot” denoted by bamboo poles jammed into the shallow muddy bottom. Each plot is netted off below water from its neighbor; and filled with below-water cross-nets on which the young clams are seeded. Every plot has a clam shack; every shack is inhabited by a man (sometimes a family (rarely) or even a dog) who’s job it is to care for and repair nets, and guard the clams. This method of farming has brought prosperity to these coastal communities. Families can now build brick houses which withstand the typhoons so much better than the thatch and bamboo ones.
Lunch itself is a major, beautiful production for our benefit. We sit on mats on the floor and share tea with our interpreter, the van driver and the boat operator. Our host and his friend, the resident of the clam shack, prepare lunch. We will have a later post about Vietnamese foods, but suffice it to say that it is beautiful, more than abundant, and with with sufficient chilies to send us all the way back to Hanoi, no boat required!!
In contrast to our tea during lunch prep, we are left to eat lunch alone while all the men gather for theirs inside the shelter of the shack. We ask them to join us, they politely refuse. Our interpreter comes out later and explains that it is a very serious rule that guides cannot sit-down to eat with guests. They are here to serve us. I remind him that Uncle Ho (as they affectionately refer to Ho Chi Minh in the north) would not approve. He wanted us all to be equal: this separation makes us feel unequal. He just smiles and returns to his comrades inside the shack.
When Jean and I get back to our hotel in Hanoi the next day we look at Google Earth. And there, for miles and miles and miles, we can see salt pans, shrimp pools, and clam shacks perched above the shallows of the edge of the South China Sea.